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Speaking of Texas: East Texas Original, Howard Peacock

In memoriam: Howard Peacock – man of letters, avowed tree hugger, friend of the Big Thicket

Howard Peacock (Photo by Randy Mallory)

In April, Texas lost two stalwarts of environmentalism, Geraldine Watson and Howard Peacock. Count them among conservationists of the 1960s who helped save remnants of the “biological crossroads of North America,” what eco-tourists now enjoy as the Big Thicket National Preserve in southeast Texas.

I did not have the pleasure of knowing Geraldine Watson, one of the great experts on Thicket ecology. But I knew Howard Peacock for more than 30 years, first as a fellow travel writer, then as a dear friend. Howard and I both started writing for Texas Highways in 1980. Appropriately, my first article (on bluegrass music) appears alongside his first (on, what else, the Big Thicket). Howard’s article touts some of his favorite Thicket things—the wild orchids, azaleas, silky camellias, and insect-eating plants.

More on Howard PeacockIn the ensuing decades, Texas Highways published more than 100 of Howard’s articles on nature, culture, food, and history—topics he covered elsewhere as well in a half-century of freelance writing. Howard went on to publish the books The Big Thicket of Texas: America’s Ecological Wonder in 1984 and Nature Lover’s Guide to the Big Thicket in 1994. He also edited The Nature of Texas: A Feast of Native Beauty from Texas Highways Magazine in 1990. Through museum seminars, nature workshops, and TV appearances, Howard taught others about the Thicket’s treasures.

Howard never tired of telling and retelling the Big Thicket story: How it harbors 10 major ecosystems, more than any other place its size in North America and perhaps the world. How indiscriminant logging, industry, and development all but destroyed it. How activists, scientists, and politicians studied and struggled to save important pieces of what remained.

Howard’s dedication to the Thicket movement earned him the nickname “Tush Hog,” defined as “the meanest old rooter of the woods,” says Maxine Johnston of Batson, a seminal activist. But Maxine and all of Howard’s friends knew him as the most lovable of all tush hogs and a consummate tree hugger ... literally. “I admit I not only hug beech trees but also kiss them,” he wrote in his last article on the Big Thicket (Texas Highways, October 2005). “Not many of them, of course; just the prettiest.”

America's first national preserve, the Big Thicket represents a wealth of biological diversity. (Photo by Stan A. Williams)

Howard was part of a long line of tree huggers determined to protect the Thicket. Beginning in the 1920s, conservationist R.E. Jackson and self-taught naturalist Lance Rosier took scientists and powerful people on field trips to experience the Thicket. Sixties-era environmentalists—including Howard,
Maxine, Geraldine Watson, Harold Nicholas, and others—did the same after forming the Big Thicket Association in 1964. Fellow activist and Big Thicket author Pete Gunter of Denton, says, “Some of us were in attack mode against the timber companies. Howard was inherently gentle and poetic. He wanted to show people the heart of the forest.”

Finally, in 1974, Congress created the Big Thicket National Preserve, America’s first national preserve. Since then it has grown to 100,000 protected acres in nine separate land units and six water corridors in seven southeast Texas counties. Howard served as Big Thicket Association president (1975-1976) and remained active in the organization the rest of his life. One of his last public appearances in the Thicket came in 2008 during the association’s Big Thicket Day in Kountze. “Howard and other members of the association served as the public voice of the Thicket,” says Big Thicket National Preserve Chief of Interpretation Leslie Dubey, “and they still do.”

Curious Like a Cat

Howard shared the same birthday, July 12, with one of his literary heroes, American naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau.

Howard surely was channeling Thoreau in his 2005 Texas Highways article when he suggested: “The best way to walk in the woods is like a curious but contented cat. You’re alert to sounds, smells, sights, textures, and yes, if you know your wild berries, your taste. ... Walking that way, you see trees, leaves, lizards, tracks, and birds in a new light.”

Contemplative walks also gave Howard purpose and solace, even as a child, a fact he recounted two years ago in a brief timeline of his life, a document residing with his archives at the Sam Houston Regional Library & Research Center in Liberty.

Born in Beaumont in 1925, Howard began writing stories as a boy about scouting outings in the Big Thicket. Writing became his passion; he sold his first magazine article while still in high school.

During World War II, he served on a U.S. Navy ammunition ship in the Philippines, then returned to civilian life as a reporter for The Beaumont Journal. In 1949, he married Kitty Galiano, his true love for the next 52 years.

The couple moved to Houston, where Howard worked as a writer and fundraiser. He produced 100 episodes of an early TV talk show called Ideas in Focus, a project of the Texas Bill of Rights Foundation to engage opposing political positions in sharp but well-mannered dialogue.           

All the while Howard wrote in his folksy way to promote the Big Thicket. In 1974, the Peacocks moved with their cats to a dogtrot farmhouse under a beech tree in Woodville to be closer to others involved in the Save the Thicket movement. Fellow Big Thicket author and historian Francis E. Abernethy of Nacogdoches adds, “I think he moved to Woodville ... to save his soul from gasoline fumes and packed traffic. One of his personalities was quite private, which lent itself to solitary wanderings in the woods.”

Zen in the Woods

Kitty Peacock died in 2001, and Howard moved to an apartment on San Antonio’s picturesque River Walk. There he explored its riverine pathways as he had the dappled trails of the Thicket. A small park called Portal San Fernando proved a favorite stop. He frequented the spot to sit on a limestone block in a cool breeze perfumed by yellow esperanza flowers, where he lost himself in thought.

Several years ago my wife, Sallie Evans, and I began visiting Howard in San Antonio. Typically we took him to lunch at a favorite Mexican-food hangout—perhaps Mi Tierra or El Mirador. We once sauntered along the River Walk to famed coronetist Jim Cullum’s jazz club, The Landing, where Howard closed his eyes, swayed back and forth, and got lost in the music.

Howard regaled us about his faithful San Antonio friends, the ones he met for food and playful conversation, as well as his more distant friends who helped sustain his spirits during his final months of failing health.

One of my favorite memories of Howard involves a visit to the Big Thicket in 2000, when we walked among his beloved beech trees with mutual friend and author Christopher Cook, a Beaumont native now living in Prague. Christopher interviewed Howard, and I shot photos as he reviewed his time in the Thicket. Pausing beside a smooth-barked tree, he explained the subtle difference between hornbeam, crape myrtle, and ironwood. Then he surprised us: “I am trying to forget names of trees and flowers and birds and everything like that. … I found out that the names get in the way. When you are looking at a flower and trying to figure out the name, you are not enjoying the flower.” Later Christopher remarked about the Zen-like quality of Howard’s observation.

A few years ago, I began sending Howard a page-a-day Zen calendar, the same one that I bought each year. We sometimes discussed the sayings we enjoyed, as well as some we couldn’t understand.

One of the Zen sayings I keep close at hand asks: “If enlightenment is not where you are standing, where will you look?” I believe Howard saw the light when he wrote in 2005 about walking in the woods: “The last thing you do is hurry. You’re not going somewhere; you like being where you are.”

On July 12, Howard Peacock would have turned 86. He died on April 22, which was, appropriately, Earth Day.

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